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Funeral and Bereavement service changes: A Conversation with Councillor Sharon Thompson

On Thursday 2nd April, our CEO, Sabrina Dennis had a live conversation with Councillor Sharon Thompson, Cabinet Member for Homes and Neighbourhoods at Birmingham City Council, to talk about the changes to the funeral and bereavement services due to Covid-19.

It was important for us to see if members of the community had any questions related to this topic, as many are going through the unthinkable right now so it was essential that we could create a space for key questions to be asked so that we can get the correct information circulated to those that need it.

We asked a series of questions from members of the community and these are the responses to follow:

What are the official numbers allowed at funerals?

In Birmingham, the number is set at 6 at the graveside. In churches, it will differ due to the size of churches and the capacity, but they will set the numbers in accordance to their capacity in alignment with following social distancing rules. The number of 6 was set because in order to follow the social distancing rule of 2 metres apart, that seemed like an adequate number to make sure the rules were being followed.

We will be continuously reviewing these numbers as we understand the difficulty this will bring for many families and communities but at the moment, that is the set number, so that we can keep people safe.

We would rather have less funerals than have funerals that have a large attendance where people run the risk of spreading the virus further. It is a very difficult decision that was made and we are reviewing this constantly, but as it stands currently, 6 is the number.


What can a family do if they have no money or life insurance?

There is a fund available for people to apply if they are on certain types of benefits, so the next of kin can apply for that. This, however, will have to be paid back at a later date if they were to be subsidised.

We are having conversations with members of the government to see if it is possible to put a package together for families, as in some cases, there have been multiple losses from one family.


Will there only be cremations due to the increase in fatalities? Will burials no longer be an option?

No, there will still be an option for burials as well as cremations, if families so wish. Both are options. Government were proposing a change in legislation where the government and local authorities, if they ran out of space, they could decide whether you are cremated or have a burial but there have been amendments to legislation where both options are still available. We are very confident that there is enough space for both burials to take place and there is enough resources for cremations to occur also. We will not be forcing people down the route of cremations.


Are there sufficient spaces in mortuaries, due to the increase?

Across the region of the West Midlands, Birmingham and Solihull as well as all the other surrounding areas have been in discussion to see what that would mean for all of us. Birmingham airport is available for space, if we so need it. However, we are confident with the numbers of spaces we have. We also created an extension of spaces up to 12,000 in Sutton New Hall Cemetery, over a year ago.


Are you able to visit cemeteries and crematoriums?

No, unfortunately not. There has been a considerable increase in visits to cemeteries in large numbers so the decision was taken to close them and only open when funerals take place. The decision was not taken lightly and was extremely difficult to do especially if you usually visit relatives and friends on any normal occasion. However, so we can protect as many as people as possible, we had to close them as in many cases, people were not observing the social distancing rules.


What’s the process now if someone passes away, even if they don’t pass from Coronavirus?

We have changed the process now because of Covid-19. You can now register deaths online and over the phone – forms can be submitted online.

We also had to change the process because there are cases where for example, the husband passed away and now the wife has to be in isolation, so the process is changing so things can be operated quicker and in more timely manner.

We have also been speaking to Funeral Directors so they have been working closely with the Council so that they are able to guide families also.


What types of pressures are Funeral Directors under?

We have to remember that everyone is human. So that means, like everywhere, some of their staff might be in isolation and so there may be staff shortages. There is a considerable increase in deaths, so their capacity is strained, it is important that you bear with them also.

This is a very upsetting situation that we are all in, so with that comes many emotions as we are all trying to navigate through these unprecedented times together, so it is important there is a unified understanding.

There are going to be difficulties in booking spaces and slots for funerals. Churches have also said that they are not allowing for large congregations. There is going to be many disappointments in the fact that you will not be allowed to have the numbers you want coming to your family or friend’s funerals.

Funeral Directors have to do a lot coordination and collaboration with hospitals, medical examiners, doctors etc, so if there are delays in procedures and processes, we encourage more understanding as we are all navigating through this season together.


Can elderly relatives attend funerals?

This would be down to using your discretion. We cannot tell you who your 6 family members will be, however, we strongly advise you to think about whether people fall into the high risk category.


Will there be a review of the numbers allowed to attend funerals?

Yes, we will be reviewing it but we will also be doing so in complying with social distancing rules. We have had instances where, even though, we set the number at 6, there were gatherings of over 80 and 100 people at one time. We will definitely be reviewing the number in the cases of larger families, but if the public work in accordance and in collaboration with us then the less difficult the decisions are.


Have Birmingham prepared themselves for the increase in the need for mental health referrals after Covid-19? Bereavement counselling for adults and children as well as PTSD counselling for frontline workers as an example.

We always work across directorates and Councillor, Paulette Hamilton, Cabinet Member for Health and Social Care in Birmingham City Council is very passionate about Mental Health services so we are working collaboratively to make sure that there is support post-Covid19.

The government have been very generous so far, in terms of financial support and the worry is after Covid-19, the resources may stop. We are asking for investments in bereavement counselling services for both statutory and voluntary sector, so we can prepare for after Covid-19. Essentially, we cannot provide the services if we do not have the government funding supporting them, so we are lobbying them and are in constant conversations.


Are there any suggestions in terms of live recordings of funeral services?

In crematoriums, that is already taking place. In terms of burial services, we strongly advise you to ask the permission of the family if they have any obligations. Also, please pre-arrange with Funeral Directors if you are wanting to film and capture at the service.


We sincerely hope that this information has helped and if you think this will be of any use to anyone, please feel free to share this information to them. Thank you to everyone who sent in their questions.

Please stay safe and look after one another.

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